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GOLF NOTEBOOK / MARTIN BECK : Lea Chooses to Steer Career on Another Course

Kevin Lea felt his dream slipping away, so last year he went sliding after it.

Lea was an aerospace engineer who wished he could make his living on the golf course. That didn’t exactly make him unique, but his next move did.

He quit his job at Loral Aeronutronic in Newport Beach in May 1993 and dedicated himself full time to a career in golf.

Lea had picked up the game relatively late in life--he started playing as a freshman at UC San Diego and by the time he was a senior was an honorable mention NCAA Division III All-American in 1985--and he wondered how far his talent could carry him.

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He brought up the topic often, until finally his wife, Darla, forced his hand.

“One day she turned to me and said, ‘You’re getting old, either you do it right now or you’ll never get another chance,’ ” Lea said.

Lea jumped at the chance. A few months later he quit his job of 6 1/2 years.

“I was making pretty decent money,” Lea said. “I just wasn’t happy, that was the bottom line. I’m a lot happier now but we’re not as liquid--I guess that’s a good word for it.”

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The Leas get by on Darla’s salary from her job at Ford Motor Co. in Anaheim. Lea works part time at the Tustin Ranch Golf Course near the couple’s home and at a local golf shop, but most of his time is spent practicing and playing.

Making a living by playing golf is a daunting task. The purses offered by the Golden State Tour are less than hefty and the competition is fierce. Lea plans to remain an amateur--currently he is the top-ranked amateur on the Golden State Tour--until that status is costing him money.

“I don’t know where it’s going from here,” he said. “You can’t really plan ahead. You can’t say I’m going to turn pro and go to tour school. You never know what might happen.”

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Lea, 31, has had some encouraging results recently. He has won four Golden State Tour amateur events, finished fourth in the Los Angeles City Amateur and fifth in the Long Beach Amateur.

But those pale in comparison to the opportunity he’ll have next week: the U.S. Amateur in Ponte Vedra, Fla. Lea qualified for the U.S. Amateur by shooting one-over-par 145 in two rounds at Western Hills earlier this month.

Several other local players also qualified: Tiger Woods of Cypress, Kevin Claborn of Brea and Scott Gibson of Huntington Beach.

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Bob May’s rookie season on the PGA Tour has been a rough one. He has made only three cuts in 23 tournaments and has won slightly over $21,000, putting him near the bottom of the Tour’s money-winner list.

But May says his results aren’t as bad as they seem.

“The year really hasn’t gone as bad as it appears because I’ve missed 12 cuts by one shot,” said May, who grew up in La Habra. “It’s not like I’m playing bad.”

May entered the Tour with high expectations. He finished fourth on the Nike Tour money list with $132,656.

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“I thought I’d play very well this year,” said May, 25. “Things just haven’t turned out the way I’ve planned. But if you look at it, there are few players that have come right out of college or another tour and played really well in their first year.

“It’s part of golf. You have to take the good with the bad. Last year I had a year that was very good. This might be a setback that will be a good learning experience.

“You really don’t want to have to learn things the way I’m learning them, but it’s just a part of life on the Tour.”

May made the cut in his second tournament, the Northern Telecom Open in January in Tucson, Ariz., and finished in a tie for 63rd.

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He then he went 0 for February, March, April and May, missing the cut in 12 consecutive tournaments. He broke through in June, finishing in a tie for 18th in the Kemper Open in Maryland and a tie for 65th at the Buick Classic in New York.

Since then May hasn’t made a cut in eight tournaments, including a Nike Tour event last week in Springfield, Mo.

Through his struggles, May says he has maintained faith in his abilities.

“The only thing you can do is learn from it,” said May, who lives in Las Vegas with his wife, Brenda. “In golf you have to turn negatives into positives because if you dwell on negatives too much, it will kill you.

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“It just shows you that things won’t always go your way.”


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